September 19, 2007

The importance of context

Posted at 3:41 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

A look at the importance of the original context when viewing artefacts such as the Elgin Marbles.

Indiana Daily Student

Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Letters from Abroad
Out of ‘situ’, out of mind
Lindsey Landis | IDS | 9/18/2007

BOLOGNA, Italy – I am the biggest art history dweeb ever. I will freely admit it. This week, I finally made some time to start exploring the local art and culture (other than the bars and nightlife). So, I started out by doing some research on Guido Reni, my favorite Baroque painter who was born and died in this city. I made a map of the different locations, and set out one day after class to find all of it.

Just for fun.

My trek lead me to the Pinacoteca, the city art museum, where Reni had an entire gallery to himself. The pieces were luminous and larger than I had ever imagined, and the museum was enormous. I only had time to visit the one gallery, and I know that I will probably have to set aside an entire week to see everything else.

I then went to the Basilica of San Domenico, which was so beautiful and rich in history that I almost wet my pants in excitement. Mozart played the organ in one of the chapels while he was a student, and every noteworthy artist from the Bolognese school of painting contributed to the frescoes that cover every square foot (or meter, whichever you prefer) of the church.

I handled my little trip without any significant breakdowns, so the next day, I left with some of my other American friends for Ravenna. For an entire day, we walked around the city and toured the ancient churches with their Byzantine mosaics. The nerd in me exploded.

I cannot accurately describe the feeling of seeing something that you have been studying for years in real life and in its original location. Emperor Justinian and his court look a thousand times larger and more brilliant. You can actually see the shading of Christ’s face as he looks tenderly down upon his flock of sheep. I had seen most, if not all of the major images in my art history classes in Bloomington, but there is really something lost in the translation when a picture is put on a slide or a Powerpoint presentation.

The feeling of being surrounded by so much history was overwhelming. I had to stop, step away from the tour guide, put my camera in my bag and just appreciate what I was seeing.

After these experiences, I feel like I am a much stronger proponent for displaying art “in situ,” or in its original location. This is a hot topic in archaeology and art history, with the disagreements about the Elgin Marbles and new provenance laws, and I have always been able to see both sides of the argument. Not everyone is able to travel to Ravenna or other historical locations to see these glorious works, so museums were created to make art more accessible to the public. But, the pieces I saw in museums, however beautiful, were a stark contrast to having the wind knocked from my lungs by centuries old cathedrals. It seemed that the pieces belonged there. They were created for specific spaces, and I now feel that they should reside in their natural homes.

During the next two weeks, as a part of my introductory Italian language and culture course, I will be visiting several different museums and historical sites around the region. I am going to compare my experiences at both types of locations and try my best to describe everything.

However, I can already tell it’s going to be one of those you-had-to-be-there type deals.

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1 Comment »

  1. Dr Selby Whittingham said,

    11.11.07 at 9:55 pm

    The question of context has seemed to me the most important one in the Parthenon Marbles debate, and important too with regard to ther works. Two centuries ago Quatremere de Quincy made the case for art being shown”in situ.” That is also against art being toured round in peripatetic exhibitions, which John Ruskin attacked with his usual vigour.

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